As the Singapore government reacts sharply to the research on Operation Coldstore, even claiming that historians are seeking to undermine its legitimacy, it is timely to take stock of the research. The scholarship is not new: its genealogy traces to British historians who wrote about Coldstore in the late 1990s within the frame of imperial history, and whose findings have been corroborated in subsequent work.
Operation Coldstore was a massive police action jointly organised by the British, Singapore and Malayan governments on 2 February 1963, which detained over a hundred, mostly left-wing leaders on charges of conspiracy to establish a communist state in Singapore. Coldstore was a defining moment in Singapore’s history – the arrests were an important pre-condition in the secret negotiations between the governments of Singapore, Malaya and Britain for the formation of Malaysia. The purge fatally weakened the left, which provided the main political opposition to the People’s Action Party (PAP) government under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and paved the way for the establishment of a one-party state.
Over the last decade, Coldstore has emerged as a public controversy. Former leftists have used newly declassified British archival records to openly reject the conspiracy charges and assert their role in the decolonisation of Singapore. Except for brief, occasional statements, the PAP government had been fairly quiet on the issue until 2014, a year before Singapore’s 50th year of independence. Since then, the government has put forward an account of the crackdown, defended the conspiracy charges and published purported evidence of communist subversion. It has rejected countervailing accounts as selective or self-serving, while reminding Singaporeans that the PAP has built a better country after the purge.
The controversy has in large part been about historical sources, specifically British records since the PAP government has not declassified Singapore’s archives. A reader unfamiliar with the subject will encounter extracts from political and intelligence documents that purportedly support, or challenge, the government’s position. This annotated bibliography is an attempt to shed light on the issue by examining the academic research on Coldstore based on British records. As the bibliography will show, and despite official protestations for ‘a holistic reading of all the documents’, the documentary trail of Coldstore is fairly straightforward and unproblematic.
Ball, Simon J. ‘Selkirk in Singapore’. Twentieth Century British History, 10, 2 (1999): 162-91.
Simon Ball examined Operation Coldstore as a key policy matter that concerned George Selkirk, the British Commissioner of Singapore (1959-63). Using Singapore as a case study of the politics of British decolonisation, Ball delved into the imperial archive to explore Selkirk’s relationship with his superiors, notably Harold Macmillan, prime minister of Britain, and Duncan Sandys, the colonial secretary, and with politicians in Singapore and Malaya.
The article provides a detailed account of Selkirk’s role in Coldstore and the Malaysia plan. Selkirk is painted as an idealist, the only one (along with his deputy Philip Moore) with moral scruples when everyone else involved – Macmillan, Sandys, Lee Kuan Yew, and Malayan prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman – pursued strategic interests and power politics. Ball reveals how, throughout 1962, Selkirk and Moore resisted demands from Lee and the Tunku to carry out mass arrests. It is from the protestations of Selkirk and Moore that we find the familiar extracts oft-quoted in the present-day Coldstore controversy: British officials in Singapore believed that although Lim Chin Siong was a communist, he was independent of the Soviet Union and China, that the Barisan Sosialis was pursuing a constitutional line and there were no grounds for the arrests, and that Lee Kuan Yew and the Tunku sought to use the crackdown to remove a political, rather than security, threat.
This account of Coldstore is strengthened by the paradox which Ball unravelled: Selkirk wanted Lee to succeed in Singapore but would not condone the purge, believing that Lee should defeat his opponents politically, rather than rely on arrests. Selkirk was also concerned about Britain being charged with repressive action against a popular mass movement. But his protests were ultimately futile: in December 1962, Sandys ordered him to make the arrests that the Tunku and Lee demanded so that the Malaysia plan could move ahead. The British then used the left’s endorsement of the Brunei revolt of 7 December as a pretext to launch Operation Coldstore.
Ball’s work is not perfect: Selkirk is portrayed too sympathetically and given too much credit for the political success of Lee’s government after Coldstore (this is hardly surprising given its devastating impact on the left). But he, along with Matthew Jones, were the first historians to use declassified British documents that have provided a solid perspective of the realpolitik behind Coldstore.
Jones, Matthew. ‘Creating Malaysia: Singapore’s Security, the Borneo Territories, and the Contours of British Policy, 1961-1963’. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 28 (2), 2000: 85-109.
Where Selkirk was a central figure in Ball’s study of decolonisation in Singapore, Matthew Jones sought to illustrate how hasty and contradictory the making of Malaysia was. Jones traces how the superior bargaining position of local leaders, namely, Lee Kuan Yew and Tunku Abdul Rahman, forced London to supersede its better informed officials in Singapore and Malaya and underwrite the arrests. Jones emphasises that the newly declassified British records tell a different story from the published material used by previous scholars. He also shows how, in their eagerness to push through the Malaysia plan, the British ignored popular sentiment in the Borneo territories, where, as in Singapore, large segments of the population were concerned about losing their interests and rights in joining Malaysia.
Writing around the same time as Ball, Jones also concludes that Selkirk and Philip Moore had opposed the mass arrests, arguing that such action was indefensible based on the existing intelligence. The repression, they argued, would not only hurt Britain’s domestic and international image, which had already been damaged by criticisms of its draconian actions in Kenya and Nyasaland in 1959, but also rally support to the left. The day before Operation Coldstore took place, and despite having been ordered to proceed with the crackdown, Selkirk was still trying (in vain) to persuade Duncan Sandys, his superior, that there was no case for the arrests.
The picture that emerges from the paper is that of a disorganised program of decolonisation, as London repeatedly had to concede to the demands and interests of political leaders in Singapore and Malaya. Jones demonstrates that Britain’s concessions were ultimately self-defeating, as the arrests took away any real motivation for the merger of Singapore and Malaya and thus ordained its failure before it had even begun. Given the weak popular reaction to the arrests, Jones surmises that the various parties had also overestimated the power of the Barisan.
Harper, T. N. ‘Lim Chin Siong and the “Singapore Story”’. In Tan Jing Quee and Jomo K. S. eds. Comet in Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History. Kuala Lumpur: INSAN, 2001: 1-56.
Tim Harper was the first British historian to locate the research of Simon Ball and Matthew Jones within Singapore historiography and consider its academic ramifications. Drawing heavily from the work of Ball and Jones, Harper establishes the same narrative: that Selkirk and Moore resisted the demands of Lee Kuan Yew and Tunku Abdul Rahman for mass arrests in 1962, insisting that no evidence existed for such action, and that they were ultimately overridden by their superiors who wanted to push through the Malaysia project.
Published in a book dedicated to the memory of Lim Chin Siong, Harper’s essay did not focus solely on Coldstore or lionise Lim. Rather, its contribution was to offer a fresh approach to Singapore’s history within the framework of international history. As Harper argued, colonial Singapore was a study in contradictions: it was a cosmopolitan city which received numerous external influences before and after the Second World War. These influences, however, often triggered the state’s efforts to control what it viewed as security threats. Harper devoted much of his essay to consider how Lim Chin Siong’s contribution to Singapore lay in his ability to harness international and local forces to build a strong multicultural alliance against British colonialism, and how his fall was brought about by the geopolitical machinations of the British, Singapore and Malayan governments to determine the future of Malaya, Singapore and British Borneo.
Both Lim’s role in history and the impact of Operation Coldstore are thus to be understood as part of the internationalist flow and ebb of Singapore’s history. Harper’s research offers a fruitful approach to understanding the political history of Singapore, as is his view that the British archives, when read against the grain, is a valuable source.
Wade, Geoff. ‘Operation Coldstore: A Key Event in the Creation of Modern Singapore’. In Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang and Hong Lysa eds. The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years. Malaysia: SIRD & Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, 2013, pp. 15-72.
Geoff Wade and Thum Pingtjin have been named as ‘revisionist’ historians by Singapore government officials. Wade’s essay, published in a book commemorating the 50th anniversary of Operation Coldstore, somewhat exaggerates its importance by claiming that the event has been ‘woefully understudied and underdocumented’ (p. 15). The paper covers the same terrain as the previous work and does not depart from their findings. Nevertheless, it cites a more comprehensive set of British documents and sheds light on some new areas.
One important contribution of the essay is in expanding on the disagreements between Lee Kuan Yew and the Tunku which culminated in the initial failure of Coldstore in December 1962, which Wade terms Operation Coldstore I (p. 54). The Tunku would not agree to Lee adding Federation parliamentarians to the arrest list, while he also accused Lee of using Coldstore to remove the PAP’s political rivals. This conflict, along with others, would be resolved only in January 1963, which explained why the arrests took place nearly two months after the pretext, the Brunei uprising of December 1962. Wade traces in detail the disagreements – Lee’s desiring the arrests but not wanting to take personal responsibility for them (the political consequences of Lim Yew Hock’s doing so in 1956 weighed heavily on his mind), and the Tunku’s insistence on the arrests as a pre-condition for the formation of Malaysia. The disagreements, and the British efforts to mediate them, corroborate the thesis that Coldstore was politically inspired.
Another crucial point fleshed out by Wade was Selkirk’s U-turn in December 1962, where the British Commissioner claimed in a report new evidence of communist subversion following the Barisan’s support for the Brunei revolt. In defending the Singapore government’s position in December 2014, the Singapore High Commission to Australia had used Selkirk’s report at face value to establish the existence of a communist threat in Singapore. Wade makes it clear that Selkirk’s about-turn was due to Sandys’ instruction to carry out the arrests in order to broker a deal on Malaysia, the point made earlier by Ball and Jones.
Thum, Pingtjin. ‘“The fundamental issue is anti-colonialism, not merger”: Singapore’s “Progressive Left”, Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia’. Asia Research Institute Working Paper No. 211, National University of Singapore, 2013, pp. 1-25.
In this working paper, Thum Pingtjin uses the concept of a generation (from sociologist Karl Mannheim), who are unified by shared traumatic experiences, to explain why the leftists fought so hard over the issue of Singapore’s internal security. As Thum argues, their common experiences of state repression – from the 1930s through Japanese rule to the resumption of British power in the late 1940s and 1950s – led the left to oppose the Malaysia plan, even though they supported the reunification of Singapore and Malaya in principle. By focusing on social experiences, Thum’s argument departs from the mainstream view that the left opposed the Malaysia scheme out of self-preservation. However, the Mannheimian concept of a generation sits rather awkwardly with Singapore’s political history, as many leftists were of middle class backgrounds and did not possess repressive experiences.
Where Thum is more convincing is in his reading of British and Chinese-language sources. Like Wade, Thum treads familiar ground in the British archives but also uncovers new documents. Especially good is his treatment of a case in April 1962 where a Special Branch paper authorised by Lee Kuan Yew, which argued that the Communist Party of Malaya was directing the Singapore left, was heavily criticised and rejected by the head of the Singapore MI5 as lacking real evidence and grossly exaggerating the communist threat.
On Selkirk’s volte-face in December, Thum concurs with previous research. However, he goes further to demonstrate that the supposed new evidence of communist subversion provided by Selkirk was flimsy: it was based on Special Branch reports of two Barisan meetings after the merger referendum, when some members, disappointed by the results, questioned the party’s constitutional line. Thum used Chinese-language material to show that in response to these questions, Lim Chin Siong defended the constitutional strategy and firmly rejected the use of violence. Again, in advocating the Singapore government’s position in 2014, the Singapore High Commission to Australia read Selkirk’s December report out of context, without noting Lim’s response or explaining why Selkirk had changed his stance.
The history of Operation Coldstore writes itself. British sources demonstrate that the Barisan pursued a constitutional struggle, that there was no case for the arrests, and that Britain had bowed to political pressure in conducting a security operation where no threat existed. The research of so-called ‘revisionists’ like Wade and Thum simply built on the pioneering work of Ball, Jones and Harper.
It is possible that Selkirk, Moore and the Special Branch erred in their estimation of the communist threat, but such an argument would have to be supported by other sources. New records continue to be released from the British ‘migrated’ archives, which British officials had ordered to be destroyed but somehow survived and found their way to Britain. These records may modify the narrative but, given the strength of the existing material, are unlikely to alter it in a big way. The Singapore government’s urging for Coldstore to be viewed in the larger political context concedes that British records do not support its position.
That larger context is, however, a separate period of study and open to debate. Unlike the Coldstore material, British records in the 1950s often spoke positively about the communist threat. They were written in what Harper calls ‘the prose of counterinsurgency’, claiming evidence of communist subversion and supporting state crackdowns against anti-colonial activism, such as the 1955 Hock Lee Bus strike and mass protests of October 1956. Debates will emerge that pit historians who deem these sources objective and reliable, against others who note that because the British themselves were invested in the political struggle, their records have to be read against the grain. It may well turn out that historians will need to treat the imperial archive on a case-by-case basis, but the debates will be invaluable for understanding Singapore’s pasts.
Crucially, historical research requires the declassification of Singapore’s archives, which remain closed long after the topical issues of the day – colonialism, merger, the Cold War – have passed into history. It is mandatory, in fact, for the Singapore government to allow access to the archives if its stance on Coldstore is to be rigorously defended. The select group of writers who have gained privileged access to Singapore’s intelligence files have produced works that cannot be independently verified. The best documented of these works, Lee Ting Hui’s 1996 study of the ‘communist open united front’, makes no mention at all of the politics leading to Coldstore, although it was based on Internal Security Department records. Lee concedes in a brief footnote that the purge was originally to be launched on 16 December 1962 but was cancelled at the last minute.
Where the imperial archive contains the perspectives and concerns of British officials, Singapore’s records will tell a story informed by Singaporean worldviews and voices. Research based on both sets of sources will enrich our understanding of the journeys Singaporeans have made to the present, while also shining light on the paths they will take into the future. This is why historians do research on contentious pasts.
Loh Kah Seng is a Singaporean historian and assistant professor at the Institute for East Asian Studies at Sogang University, South Korea.
Notes Lee Hsien Loong, Facebook status update (no URL available), 20 December 2014.
https://www.facebook.com/leehsienloong, last accessed 26 December 20014. The post was carried in a news report, Channel NewsAsia, 20 December 2014. See for instance Poh Soo Kai, ‘Living in a Time of Deception’, in Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang and Hong Lysa (eds.), The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years (Petaling Jaya: SIRD and Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, 2013), pp. 161-202.  See for instance government rebuttals in Channel NewsAsia, 19 October 2011 and Straits Times, 8 March 2006.  Burhan Gafoor (Singapore High Commissioner to Australia), ‘Response to Poh Soo Kai’s Allegations’, New Mandala, 18 December 2014, http://www.newmandala.org/2014/12/18/reponse-to-poh-soo-kais-allegations, last accessed 26 December 2014. See also Teo Chee Hean, speech at the launch of the reprint of The Battle for Merger, http://www.mha.gov.sg/news_details.aspx?nid=MzI2NQ%3D%3D-9IGPjutf4PM%3D, 9 October 2014, last accessed 26 December 2014; and Kumar Ramakrishna’s op-ed., ‘If Singapore was Ruled by Barisan Sosialis’ in Today, 10 December 2014.  Gafoor, ‘Response to Poh Soo Kai’s Allegations’.  See Lee, Facebook status update (no URL available), 20 December 2014; and Teo, speech at the launch of the reprint of The Battle for Merger.  Gafoor, ‘Response to Poh Soo Kai’s Allegations’.  The Chinese-language source is published in a 2-volume work comprising essays on Lim Chin Siong as well as his own writings and speeches. Bianjiweiyuanhui (ed.), Linqingxiang yutade shidai, xiace (vol. 2) (Kuala Lumpur: INSAN and Wasasa Enterprise, 2002), p. 147.  Gafoor, ‘Response to Poh Soo Kai’s Allegations’. Harper, ‘Lim Chin Siong and the “Singapore Story”’, p. 21. Harper, ‘Lim Chin Siong and the “Singapore Story”’, p. 21.  Lee Ting Hui, The Open United Front: The Communist Struggle in Singapore, 1954-1966 (Singapore: South Seas Society, 1996), p. 277. See also Sonny Yap, Richard Lim and Leong Weng Kam, Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, 2009); Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, 1998); and John Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success (Singapore: Times Book International, 1984).